Steam rises from a volcano on the Big Island.
Lava, the kind that chases after Tommy Lee Jones in the movies, can reach temperatures of 2,000°F—hot enough to torch trees, immolate towns, and singe the eyebrows off your face from 50 feet away. Yet every day visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park ask the same question: Where can I see the lava?
"Everyone wants to get a look at the red stuff," says Rob Pacheco, a naturalist and founder of the Big Island tour company Hawaii Forest & Trail. "People don't run from lava here. They run to it."
The park delivers plenty of geological bang for the buck, sprawling over 333,000 acres that vary from high desert to rain forest and encompassing two of the world's most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Kilauea, the smaller of the two, has been quietly spewing lava along its eastern flank for the last 26 years, the longest period of continuous eruption in recorded history.
Rangers at the Kilauea Visitor Center give daily briefings on lava flows, road closures, and air quality–sulfur dioxide gas, acidic droplets, and dust can form "vog," a kind of volcanic smog. (Safety tip: Keep car windows closed.)
To explore the park, set out in the early morning when ghostly plumes of steam gush most dramatically from natural vents and when Crater Rim Drive, the 11-mile road atop Kilauea's caldera, is least crowded. Along the route you'll find the mighty Halema'uma'u Crater, home of Pele, goddess of fire; the Jaggar Museum with its wall of seven seismographs recording the park's frequent quakes in real time; and the Thurston Lava Tube, where you can walk 450 feet through a rock tunnel that once carried flowing lava. Bring a flashlight if you want to wander in even farther.
Though Kilauea gets most of the love, 13,667-foot Mauna Loa looms large in the background. Take the short trip up Mauna Loa Road to Kipuka Puaulu (also known as Bird Park) to get a peek at kalij pheasants and sundry Hawaiian honeycreepers, including the tiny 'apapane, with its curved bill and distinctive red feathers. Watch for the nene, the state bird, on both peaks.
The best place to see the lava glow is just outside the park, at the end of Highway 130 in Kalapana. At dusk, county workers in orange vests usher throngs of flashlight-wielding visitors to a bluff 800 yards from the active flow. As light disappears from the sky, you begin to see it; the red stuff. People watch silently as candescent streams of fiery rock dance and splatter violently, brilliantly, into the ocean, the earth giving birth to itself.
Photography courtesy Hawaii Tourism Japan
This article was first published in November 2009 and updated in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
For help booking your trip, visit AAA.com. For volcano and road conditions call Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at (808) 985-6000 or see nps.gov/havo. The Kalapana lava hotline gives updates on conditions outside the park: (808) 961-8093. To join a full-day guided hike, contact Hawaii Forest & Trail at (800) 464-1993, hawaii-forest.com.